Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stephen Budiansky "The Character of Cats"

I started this book not expecting to learn anything new. After all, as far as the natural history of cats is concerned I’ve read my fair share: “The Tribe of Tiger” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, “The Cat Who Came in From the Cold” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson as well as various other non-fictions, memoirs etc. But I couldn’t very well resist the cover or the fact that it was cheap, even if I wasn’t expecting anything earth shattering.

However, Stephen Budiansky’s take on cats proved above and beyond anything I have previously read on felines: it provided a lot of new information as well as putting to rest some often repeated cultural myths about cats. I’d have to say this is the ultimate cat book.

For instance, Budiansky puts aside any notion of looking at cats as little “big cats” which is often the way they are portrayed: “The big cats branched off from the evolutionary line that led to the domestic cat some 9 million years ago; by way of comparison, that was several million years before the chimpanzee and human lineages diverged.” For instance some big cats, such as lions, are social animals while the ancestors of our domestic cats are solitary animals, to name just important difference.

As far as domestication, the author also provides some fascinating insights. Can we even call the cat domesticated? An “exploited captive” is the expression Budiansky considers more correct to describe them (as well as camels, asian elephants and a few other species). Domestication, he argues, is a process that may well have been initiated by the animals themselves, sensing some clear benefits in associating with humans, rather than the planned, organized endeavor we often imagine; the cat however, might fit this latter idealization:

“In a very nice paradox, it is those species such as the cat, which have changed the least, that are actually most likely to have been deliberately captured and bred by man from the start.”
Certainly the cat’s physiology seems immune to the kind of noticeable changes that separate most domestic animals from their wild counterparts."

As far as cultural history goes Budiansky does a great job of reminding the reader that our relationships with animals are complex things: he deftly deconstructs Ancient Egypt as the supreme cat heaven, as well as the Middle Ages as the ultimate cat hell.

There are chapters on cat colonization based on color (a subject Sue Hubbell refers in her “Shrinking the Cat”, as well as some extensive information on cat body language and intelligence. This section was a bit uncomfortable as it relates a load of tests performed in laboratories (no discernible cruelty, mind you, but you get to wonder how do they measure electric stimuli on the brain and that sort of thing). Bottom line is: cats are intelligent, but mostly in ways that our singularly human view of the world is not well equipped to identify.

The author then tackles behavior issues that are probably closer to home for most cat owners such as spraying and aggression.

I particular liked the last section on indoor vs outdoor cats: once again I felt Budiansky provided a novel point of view:

“And even if outdoor cats do not cause extinctions or other irreversible impacts on biodiversity, they certainly cause much pain and suffering to the billions of individual animals they kill. That fact alone poses something of an ethical challenge to the humane justification for maintaining and feeding large colonies of feral cats.”

Now, I know of a few people who would probably be angry at this statement (and for the record I contribute to organizations with Trap-Neuter-Release programs), but I don’t think it can be denied that it is certainly a valid point…And there is this nugget to chew on:

“Yet ultimately, the goals of both the keep-all-cats-indoors zealots and the feed-and-protect-feral-cats zealots are probably unattainable. Many feral cats probably elude trapping, and indeed the net effect of trap-alter-release programs in the long run may be simply to create a powerful selective force in favor of an even wilier and nastier population of feral cats, since those are the ones who will be left to reproduce.”


Now excuse me while I go shop for his books on dogs and horses.


Jeane said...

Oh, I loved this book! I was surprised at all the new things I read too. His books on horses and dogs are just as good, very interesting stuff.

Another great book about cats is by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats- have you read that one?

Scotti Cohn said...

Sounds like a great read! And I intend to read it!

I have five indoor cats at the moment, and have written a children's picture book called Big Cat, Little Kitty (which will be published by Sylvan Dell Publishing in spring 2011). The book does emphasize the similarities between the Big Cats (tigers, lions, etc.) and our domestic feline friends -- because I feel there are a great many similarities, even if the Big Cats branched off 9 million years ago, as Budiansky points out.

bookworm (inês) said...

Jeane: I was under the impression that "nine emotional lives" was a different edition of "the cat who came in from the cold", but I just checked amazon and it's not, so I'm definitely getting it! I read his "The Face on your Plate" some months ago, he always has a very compassionate take on issues.

Hey Scotti, best of luck with your book! Five cats must make for a lot of interesting interactions between the different personalities...